Obama Fails to Defend the NLRB

by Joe Burns

 At his press conference last week, President Obama was given a rare chance to defend the embattled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the right to strike. A reporter directly questioned the President about the Boeing complaint: “So do you think that the NLRB complaint against Boeing… is an example of the kinds of regulations that chill job growth, and also that you yourself have called ‘just plain dumb.”

In April, the NLRB charged Boeing with violations of labor law for retaliating against Washington state International Association of Machinist members for strike activity. In the words of CEO Jim McNerney, Boeing transferred production of a line of the Dreamliner Aircraft to South Carolina because of “strikes happening every three to four years in Puget Sound.” The case has become a political football, with Republican candidates viewing to outdo each other in denouncing the NLRB.

According to an analysis in the Associated Press, this is an issue the President would love to go away. The Boeing case “has become an unwanted distraction for Obama as he tries to mend relations with the business community and contend with polls that show growing public disapproval over his handling of the economy.” So when directly asked about the case, at first the President attempted to ignore the question.

Then, when that was not working, he deferred to the NLRB hearing process. Washing his hands of the dispute, the President said:

“Essentially, the NLRB made a finding that Boeing had not followed the law in making a decision to move a plant.  And it’s an independent agency.  It’s going before a judge.  So I don’t want to get into the details of the case.  I don’t know all the facts.  That’s going to be up to a judge to decide”.

If the President had stopped there, perhaps supporters could adopt a charitable view and say he was just trying to stay out of the dispute. Maybe if this were a run of the mill case, such a response would be acceptable. However, all major Republican candidates have weighed in decisively on Boeing’s side and viciously attacked the Board. There is no neutrality in this highly politicized dispute.

Certainly, Republicans are not letting the dispute runs its legal course. Mitt Romney accused Obama of appointing “union stooges into the NLRB.” In fact, Republicans are actively intervening in the dispute, with Newt Gingrich going so far as to propose cutting off funding for the NLRB over the issue. Republican Senators have  threatened to block the confirmation of the NLRB acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, unless he drops the case. Given the level of vitriol against the NLRB, silence from Obama means hanging his own agency out to dry

If Obama stopped there, his response would have been disappointing but predictable. During the upsurge in Wisconsin this year, unions requested Obama take a stand in defense of collective bargaining. Unlike the steady drumbeat of right wing union-bashing politicians, President Obama’s response was mostly silence with a reluctant, and weak, statement supporting collective bargaining.

The President, however, did not remain silent. Instead, on the basic issue underlying this, Obama took management’s side.

What I do know is this — that as a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate.  They have to follow the law, but that’s part of our system.  And if they’re choosing to relocate here in the United States, that’s a good thing.  And what it doesn’t make — what I think defies common sense would be a notion that we would be shutting down a plant or laying off workers because labor and management can’t come to a sensible agreement.

Here, Obama’s focus is exclusively on management’s alleged rights— an alleged “freedom to relocate,” which one will find nowhere in the text of the NLRA. In contrast, Obama never mentions the real issue in dispute and the right his embattled agency is pledged to defend—the right to strike. The issue is Boeing’s blatant and publicly admitted retaliation against strike activity.

Finally, it turns out Obama does not really want the hearing process to take its course after all. Rather, he urges the parties to settle the dispute. Certainly, that is how the Wall Street Journal interpreted his comments, noting the President “strongly hinted that Boeing Co. and its union in Washington State should settle their differences for the sake of jobs and corporate investment.” However, with Republicans attacking the NLRB, and their own President accepting management’s terms of debates, what sort of settlement will the NLRB be able to force out of Boeing.

Does it matter to that President Obama failed to support the NLRB? To unionized Boeing workers in Washington State who are attempting to preserve jobs, some support would certainly help. To NLRB under attack by the right wing, a nod from the President likely would be welcome. Beyond that, there really should be no surprises here. What does matter is that the labor movement—like the labor movement of decades past—come to believe that the right to strike is a fundamental human right which cannot be taken away by politicians or judges.

Joe Burns is a  union negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike, which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here.

2 Responses

  1. You know what this current crowd of GOP liars want is to turn the United Sates into China, where only a few giant corporations run things, they own the factories, the apartments, the grocery stores, the gas stations, the newspaper and magazine publications, the radio stations, the television stations and you pay them and they get all the benefits, and if you do not like it go jump off cliff. Well some Chinese workers seeing that as individuals that they cannot progress have done just that by committing suicide.

    The current crowd of GOP liars want to steal Medicare from the elderly, they want to abolish a woman’s right to choose and have control over her own body, they want to abolish collective bargaining rights for our Unions, and on top of it all they want to blame the poor, the middle class and the public sector workers for a recession that the GOP created (Thanks to the Dullard “W”), while their beloved “Fat cats” continue to pay themselves exorbitant salaries, bonuses, fringe benefits.

    The GOP is like the “Chicken Littles” always saying that the “Sky is Falling”, like the same ones that were the “Chicken Hawks” (“W” Wars), big talk no courage.

    The United States, favors creativity wherever it can be found. We’re apostles of prosperity and defenders of the free exchange of ideas and when more people in more countries are free to rise, to invent, to communicate, to dissent, it’s not the doom of United States leadership, its the triumph of the American way.

    Generations have worked hard and sacrificed much for the country to reach this point (individuals and our Unions!), and with further hard work and sacrifice (along with our relentless self-doubt) the United States will rise again, we do not tire and we are coming back, no matter what Faux News and their GOP “Chicken Littles” lackies keep saying about our nation. Never Bet Against the United States, watch out GOP, we are coming for you! The win in New York was the beginning but the next will be Indiana, Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and later the other states of our nation.

  2. […] Joe Burns: Obama fails to defend NLRB […]

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